Video game collectibles begin smashing auction records
The superior user engagement of the video game industry saw it surpass the global revenues of the music industry and the movie industry more than a decade ago, and it is forecast to grow for the next five years at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 13 percent. In 2020, video game revenues totaled US$159 billion, compared to $43 billion in 2019 for the world movie box office (which retracted in size in 2020) and $57 billion for the music industry. Now there is a growing indication that video game memorabilia values will reflect the size and importance of the current games market, and perhaps even exceed the values of movie and music memorabilia.
Just 12 months ago, the record price for a video game was $100,150, paid in a private sale for the only known “sticker sealed” copy of the 1985 classic Super Mario Bros. Due to its popularity, Nintendo reprinted Super Mario Bros. from 1985 to 1994 numerous times, resulting in 11 different box variations (according to this visual guide). The first two variations are “sticker sealed” copies that were only available in the New York and L.A. test market launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985 and 1986. Of all the sealed copies of Super Mario Bros., this is the only known “sticker sealed” copy and was certified by Wata Games with a Near Mint grade of 9.4 and a “Seal Rating” of A++.
The record grew to $114,000 for a 1985 copy of Super Mario Bros. in June, 2020, $156,000 for a 1990 copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 in December 2020 and, this week, a 1985 copy of Super Mario Bros. sold at Heritage Auctions for $660,000.
The new record was widely expected as the entire market is growing like Topsy and the video game that set the record is graded as the finest known copy of the oldest sealed hangtab copy of Super Mario Bros.
The classic Nintendo video game was purchased in 1985 as a Christmas gift, but ended up being placed inside a desk drawer, where it remained untouched for 36 years, before being discovered earlier this year.
“This particular copy was produced in late 1986, and it was one of the earliest copies produced that had plastic shrink wrap, rather than sticker seal,” says Heritage Auctions Video Games Director Valarie McLeckie. “By early 1987, Nintendo was producing a version that had another new variation to their original packaging (an additional “code”). Since the production window for this copy and others like it was so short, finding another copy from this same production run in similar condition would be akin to looking for single drop of water in an ocean. Never say never, but there's a good chance it can't be done.”
Our 2020 annual coverage of the top 100 lots sold at auction covered several prior sales of video games and anticipated further records due to the recent emergence of Wata-certified video games in 2019.
Since the industry has had an independent grading system available, video games have been selling for record prices and the hobby's upward trajectory is now near vertical, partially due to the grading system enabling games to be safely purchased at auction, and partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the pandemic has been devastating for many industries, it has been equally stimulating for some others, and the auction memorabilia industry is a prime example of the latter.
The necessities of shelter-in-place have sparked a surge in the auction prices of memorabilia, most notably those categories with independent grading services such as coins, stamps, sports cards, comics and movie posters, and most of the movement in prices is for memorabilia from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
The sports cards industry has now fully metamorphosed from a sizeable niche industry to a financial phenomena. Until recently, scant regard was paid to sports cards other than baseball cards, but in the first year of the pandemic, both basketball and hockey cards sold for more than $1 million for the first time and what was already a billion dollar a year industry in 2019 became supercharged.
Just two years ago, a “Honus Wagner T205” was the “Holy Grail” of baseball cards, even though Wagner retired in 1917 and there's no one alive who can remember him in his heyday. Now, the list of top-selling sports cards for all sports are dramatically moving to sports stars of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, reflecting the generational change in high-value collecting. The investors these days are those who grew up trading and collecting cards before it was fashionable, and before they had made their fortunes. They now realize they can still trade profitably because they know the game inside out.
The same is happening across all collectible genres. Motorcycle and car prices at the top end are static, but the dream cars and bikes of the baby boomer generation are all generating remarkable prices at auction as people attempt to purchase the things they had yearned for in their youth.
2020 was a bumper year for 1970s, 1980s and 1990s memorabilia, and the democratization of music that occurred during the youth of the baby boomers is also showing at auction, with the axes of the guitar gods regularly selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars and music concert posters suddenly increasing tenfold in value.
Nostalgia will never be out of style, but the hottest prices are paid for the nostalgia that is most in demand. Video games have dominated the mindset of youth for the last three decades. The game that set the world record price is a pristine example of a variant for this title that was produced for an extraordinarily short period of time. Its desirability is primarily fueled by its rarity, but further compounded by its elite level of preservation. It is the oldest factory-sealed copy of Super Mario Bros., which is one of the most recognizable and popular games of all time, with more than 50 million copies sold. Mario is among the most recognized fictional or non-fictional characters in the world, and this game launched what would become the world’s largest game franchise.
Measured in dollars fetched at auction, Mario might eventually be recognized for his immense contribution to modern culture.